Valencia, Spain, 14th-17th July
The first thing we discover about [b]Benicàssim[/b] is that it’s really not about the music. We don’t mean that in a negative way (this year’s line-up is pretty formidable), nor to insinuate that it’s somehow all about beer sales and corporate branding (though at €7.50 a pint, we imagine Heineken have made a tidy fortune this weekend). No, what Benicàssim is really all about is ‘the chilling’.
See, while back in Blighty the average festival-goer spends the entire day on their feet, trudging between stages to watch unremarkable mid-afternoon sets by lower-league indie bands and searching in vain for a toilet that doesn’t smell like the last occupant emptied every bodily orifice into it simultaneously, punters at Beni are barbecuing under the cloudless Spanish sky. Or larking about in the nearby waterpark.
Or having go-kart races. Or swimming in the Mediterranean. They have a pleasant mid-afternoon siesta, go watch some bands as the sun begins to set, party until 6am, then rinse and repeat. It may not offer the same eclectic breadth of choice as, say, Glastonbury, but you can’t help but come away with the sneaking suspicion that this is how festivals should be done.
Of course, there are some similarities. Brits are everywhere. And, as with pretty much every other festival in 2011, [a]Plan B[/a] is here, too. Despite the heat, Ben Drew takes the stage in yet another ill-fitting suit straight off the First-Time Offender rack at Burton, but his Thursday night slot feels a bit looser and more lairy than we’re accustomed to, and with a set as familiar as this, that’s no bad thing. How loose and lairy? Drumkits get wrecked, put it that way.
Following him are [a]The Streets[/a], whose farewell tour is turning out to be a thing of Eagles-esque proportions. We half-expect a shirtless Mike Skinner to remind the crowd that “I’m never gonna play these songs at a large international music festival on the Mediterranean coast of Spain again!” but thankfully he focuses instead on delivering a rowdy, hit-filled set of the sort that we’ll genuinely miss once he’s gone for good (whenever that may be). It’s left to [a]Pendulum[/a] to take the crowd into the really small hours.
Come Friday, however, pretty much all anyone can talk about is [a]The Strokes[/a]. No-one really knows what’s going on with the band right now, and the hour we spend in the artists’ area before their set reveals frustratingly little (Albert chats on the phone; Nick wanders around looking for Julian). But know this: even if these guys really do hate each other, the magic of watching them play together remains undimmed. Last weekend at T In The Park, they were merely very good. Tonight, they are sensational.
“Wow, muchos fuckin’ people,” grins Julian as he looks out on the crowd shortly before they erupt to the unmistakable siren-esque jangle of [b]‘Last Nite’[/b]. There are also muchos fuckin’ people watching from the side of the stage – including (after a shameful blag) ourselves and Brandon Flowers, who can’t resist a lick or two of air guitar to a searing [b]‘Reptilia’[/b]. In marked contrast to their T set, even unfamiliar [b]‘Angles’[/b] tracks like [b]‘Machu Picchu’[/b] and [b]‘You’re So Right’[/b] are met with unconditional enthusiasm. [a]The Strokes[/a] still have it, no doubt. But do they still want it?
After such a heroes’ welcome for the New Yorkers, it’s another swerve in gear as [a]Friendly Fires[/a] limber up to drive Benicàssim into the rave and towards sunrise. Now, this band’s specifically ‘Brits abroad’ USP makes them possibly the most perfect booking thinkable for this festival. This being 3am, of course, there’s no jumping in any pools, just fluoro-spattered couples on each other’s shoulders, getting down to guitar-spangled Balearica.
[b]Tame Impala[/b], meanwhile, prove to be a decidedly less thrilling proposition on Saturday evening. Their fuzzy-headed retro-psychedelia works great on record, but [b]‘Solitude Is Bliss’[/b] and [b]‘Lucidity’[/b] sound aloof and noncommittal tonight, as though they’ve taken the chilled-out vibe of Benicàssim too literally. When the most interesting thing you can say about this set is that Kevin Parker delivers it shoeless, you know something’s amiss.
[a]Bombay Bicycle Club[/a] do a far better job of looking like they’re enjoying themselves. Jack Steadman takes the stage with his shirt collar up in a Cantona-esque show of defiance (perhaps), before treating us to a slew of tracks from incoming third album [b]‘A Different Kind Of Fix’[/b], as well as older favourites like [b]‘Evening/Morning’[/b]. And cockle-warmingly triumphant it all sounds too, at least until everybody buggers off to [a]Mumford & Sons[/a], who should start sending every band they clash with this summer a nice Marks & Spencer hamper and a card conveying their apologies.
The numbers that turn out for them are ridiculous, but not unjustified – [a]Mumford & Sons[/a] are a consummate festival band, whose entire setlist consists, not so much of songs, but of moments, all of them written to be bellowed long and loud into night skies. Before [b]‘Awake My Soul’[/b], Marcus even displays a deft touch of local diplomacy, asking the audience, “Who here is English? You know there’s lots of festivals in England, right? And who here is Español? Thank you for having us and hosting all these filthy British people.”
Christ, even the three new songs they play – [b]‘Lover’s Eyes’[/b], [b]‘Hopeless Wanderer’[/b] and [b]‘Lover Of The Light’[/b] – already sound like road-worn anthems. You worry for [a]Arctic Monkeys[/a] at that point: though they’ve topped their share of big bills, they’re not exactly ‘natural’ headliners. But from the opening notes of [b]‘Library Pictures’[/b] it’s clear they’re energised and up for the challenge.
[a]‘Suck It And See’[/a]’s more festival-friendly moments feature heavily, as you’d expect – the Roses jangle of [b]‘She’s Thunderstorms’[/b], the tricksy, angular [b]‘All My Own Stunts’[/b] and the title track’s shimmering West Coast harmonies are highlights – but after an initially mixed response from fans (if not critics), the album is blossoming in the live setting. That said, it always helps when you can toss in a [b]‘Mardy Bum’[/b] or a [b]‘When The Sun Goes Down’[/b] for good measure.
All of which simply ups the ante for [a]Arcade Fire[/a] to deliver their now customary killer headline set on Sunday, leaving you breathless with their mournful fervour. No siesta ’til the suburbs for Win, Régine and the gang – after all, Benicàssim may be four blissful days of R&R for the punters, but for the bands, it’s closer to bloodsports.